ACTOR GEORGE CLOONEY, in his new film, The Monuments Men, shows how warring nations should learn from the past by preserving important historical artifacts. Based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same name, it tells the story of the vast looting of art that went under the Nazis and the allied men whose job it was to retrieve it.
According to Clooney, if nations think they have no alternative other than to go to war, they should at least protect historical objects that educate people in order to learn about the past.
Sometime in July 2006, Ethiopia finally succeeded in getting back one of its national religious treasures, the Axum Obelisk, which is 1,700 years old. It had been looted by Italy nearly 80 years ago.
Earlier in 2004, a German museum handed back to Zimbabwe a soapstone carved bird after nearly 110 years. The Zimbabwe Bird is an emblem of the country, appearing on the national flag and currency.
The Ethiopian Obelisk and the Zimbabwean Bird are just two of the many traditional and sacred objects that vanished from Africa and ended up in museums, learning institutions or just private homes abroad during the colonial era.
In Rwanda we should endeavor to preserve our past given that there is a lot that the future generation can learn from our tumultuous history. It is not only monuments that should be preserved. We should also be looking at memorabilia, Genocide sites and documentary heritage that could contribute to the recording of our own turbulent history.
While archiving such a collection is a daunting undertaking, it is of great significance for us as a nation. We need, besides our national museum in Huye, 140 kilometres away to the south, a national Cultural Centre, which would be a custodian to numerous cultural heritage artifacts and records.
We should know the past as both a precious asset and a limited resource, its future is entrusted to us alive today. The purpose of the said centre would, among other things, be to identify and ensure protection of our historical sites and other vitally important documents and memorabilia.
Besides teaching the Rwandan people their history, these sites and other artifacts will attract visitors to Rwanda, thereby giving us the much needed foreign exchange. It would be a shame if Rwanda were to have only new buildings and sites and post-Genocide literature and artifacts.
Surely, we have a history, however murky, that our future generation has to contend with. The challenge is now to our national museum to identify these sites and artifacts and document them for purposes of protection and recognition and for our posterity.
For Rwanda, governments that came after the flag independence of 1961 are three. There was the first Republic under Grégoire Kayibanda, the architect of the exclusionist politics which entrenched the ideology that ensured the exclusion of the Batutsi and the Batwa from socio-economic, military and political affairs of Rwanda.
The ideology of the first Republic, mid-wifed by the Belgian colonial mentors and buttressed by some influential elements of the Catholic Church, sowed seeds of discord that led to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The second Republic, which came into existence in 1973, following a blood-less coup led by the then Defence minister Juvénal Habyarimana, was equally divisive but with impeccable credentials in window dressing techniques.
A philosophy of “equilibrium”, a kind of separate development, or balancing, reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, was devised. Each “ethnic” group would have access to the national cake in accordance with its numerical percentage to the entire population.
So the Hutu, at ostensibly 84 per cent of the population, would have the lion’s share in accessing education, employment, recruitment in the military, lucrative business and so on, while the others were left on the peripheries.
Identity cards clearly indicated which ethnic group one belonged to. The first and the second Republics worked hard to ensure that there were few, if any, traces of the monarchy. Nyanza, the seat of the pre-colonial monarchical state, was renamed Nyabisindu.
Except in history books, the kings’ palaces were desecrated, remaining largely abandoned relics of little physical significance. Not much was taught in schools about the monarchy and pre-colonial history and the role of the Rwandan state in the geo-politics of the region.
While the first Republic played down any positive role that the monarchy may have had in Rwanda, the second Republic, while superficially appearing benevolent, did nothing much to portray objectively the history of pre-independence and post-independence Rwanda.
Since 1994, the Government of Rwanda has emphasised issues that bind the people of this nation and has attempted to demonstrate that Rwandans share their rich history, culture, language and a host of others.
The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama